On Sundays, there’s no room for dance students at the Bluffton School of Dance.
Instead, the school on Persimmon Street morphs into the nondenominational Live Oak Christian Church.
About 250 to 300 people shuffle past the school’s hallway, lined with dance recital photos, and take a seat in studio spaces with ballet bars and wooden floors, dented from tap shoes. There, they listen to a weekly sermon and enjoy worship music, sometimes performed by a live band.
At a time when mainstream Protestant churches are closing across South Carolina, some worshipers are meeting in unconventional places and trying new approaches to achieve their age-old mission: reaching people with the Christian gospel.
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“We’re a laid-back, come-as-you-are kind of church,” said Michael Beaumont, lead pastor at Live Oak. “There’s zero pretense in our church, and we don’t rely on our location as an identity. Our identity has more to do with the people in our church.”
Long term, the congregation hopes to build its own church by the Bluffton Post Office, where it already owns a plot of land. The building would be used as a performing arts center for community groups during the week and a church on the weekends, Beaumont said.
While a church in a dance studio might seem like an odd place to worship, Live Oak is one of a growing number of S.C. churches taking the new tack.
Come to Jesus — in a tavern
Once a month, New Brookland Tavern, a gritty West Columbia venue known for its metal and punk bands, transforms from a Saturday night house of rock to a Sunday morning house of worship.
With ears still ringing from late-night jams, late-morning brunchgoers pass by the open bar door. Inside, a few dozen people ranging from kids to seniors sip coffee and play pool before gathering in front of the band stage for worship singing, prayer and preaching.
When people hear about having church in a bar, “Everybody just goes, ‘What?’” said Jody Ratcliffe, pastor of the 2-year-old Church at West Vista. “And then they think and go, ‘Wait a minute, that’s really cool.’ ... Our model meets the needs of folks who have ever been hurt in the past and they just don’t want to go to church ever again.”
Ratcliffe had been a Southern Baptist preacher who sensed a desperate need for change in the church he led. But by the time he drew up his ideas for what he’d like to see change, Ratcliffe realized he was dreaming of a whole new kind of church.
“The traditional church has the mentality that everyone knows we’re here, and if we just open our doors, people will come if they want,” he said. “Millennials don’t value legacy. ... A lot of our older churches, they’ve been relying on legacy for decades.”
Once a month, the church meets at West Columbia’s New Brookland Tavern to worship together. The rest of the month, members meet in smaller groups in several homes across Columbia and Lexington County to share a meal and study the Bible.
“No one gets lost in the crowd, and during the week, we’re able to keep up with one another as needs arise,” Ratcliffe said. “There’s room for lots of different sizes of churches and kinds of churches. There’s room for everybody.”
‘You’re less intimidated’ in a movie theater
The plush reclining chairs at the Columbiana Grande movie theater are, arguably, a step up from the hockey locker room at a nearby indoor sports complex — smell-wise, at least.
OneLife Community Church moved its weekly meetings from a Columbia-area gym to the movie theater two years ago.
“You’ve never been to a church with a more comfortable chair,” joked Derrick Boatwright, a member of the church’s leadership team. “We feel like it’s a safe space. ... You’re less intimidated than you’d be walking into a typical cathedral building. ... It fit the culture of our church.”
If someone’s comfortable going to the movies, they should feel comfortable walking into OneLife, Boatwright said. (They even have popcorn.)
The church has worked to create an environment that offers the comfort of a high-quality experience with the intimacy of close-knit relationships. Those are two things that don’t always go together in a church, Boatwright said.
For now, the church relies on video preaching from the national Life.Church network. But OneLife is searching for a full-time pastor who will preach on site every Sunday.
On a “good” Sunday, more than 100 attendees come to worship, Boatwright said, including “people who have stepped away from the church, maybe been hurt by the church,” Boatwright said. “We want to show them what the church is supposed to be like.”
Worship by the water
Surrounded by beachgoers, fishermen and the Atlantic Ocean, Cat Baynes hands out church bulletins as more than 100 vacationers and residents look for seats under the awning on Myrtle Beach’s Apache Pier.
Worshipers can be spotted wearing sunglasses, hats, flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts as the chaplain delivers his sermon.
Baynes has been living on the Apache Family Campground and attending these weekly services for more than two years. Her mother was one of the ministry’s first members.
The ministry’s longtime chaplain, Richard Jenkins, calls the congregation the Church of the Bad Sheep: People are all wandering, but God comes to get them, he said.
Services average about 250 attendees in the summertime and 125 during the off season.
The history behind campground ministries stems from local churches sending out lay people to perform services because vacationers often didn’t bring dress clothes to the beach, Jenkins said.
Nondenominational churches have become the norm throughout the Grand Strand area, and Jenkins theorized that people have just gotten tired of playing the political games that sometimes come with denominational churches.
“I think people want to get to the heart of what gospel is about, instead of rules,” he said. “Some churches only love people just like them. There’s more acceptance in a nondenominational setting.”
Baynes, raised Baptist, said she recalls a lot of finger-pointing in her former church, but she’s always greeted with open arms on the pier.
“It doesn’t matter where you worship,” says Ray Jackson, who has been attending these services for 20 years. “We’re all together in the house of God.”